In June 2017 The New Yorker magazine published a piece under the evocative title, “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit.”
It told the story of the “Beatrice Six”–three men and three women sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the 1985 rape and murder of a grandmother in the small Nebraska town of Beatrice (pronounced bee-AT-trice). Five of the accused had confessed; only one had steadfastly maintained his innocence. More than two decades passed before DNA testing revealed none of those convicted had been present at the crime scene.
Among those who read The New Yorker article back in 2017 was filmmaker Nanfu Wang.
“I was immediately intrigued,” Wang recalls. “After reading [the article], I knew that I wanted to explore it in the form of a film.”
That exploration evolved into the new six-part documentary series Mind Over Murder, for HBO. A new episode premieres on the cable channel each Monday through July 25 (episodes 1 and 2 have aired so far; episode 3 debuts July 4). Underpinning the series is a perplexing question: how could five people admit to committing a heinous crime, despite not being involved?
“To me, this has always been a story about the malleability and fallibility of memory,” Wang tells Deadline. “We’re looking at this through a criminal case where six people were wrongfully convicted of a murder, but yet many of them still have a memory of being at the murder. And we look at how false memory formed and what it takes to change people’s minds.”
Wang interviewed most of the surviving defendants in the case (one of the six—Joe White, the only one who never admitted guilt—died in a workplace accident less than two years after he was exonerated). She also interviewed the man most responsible for obtaining the convictions, a former police officer turned pig farmer, Burdette “Burt” Searcey. As a self-appointed private eye, he took it upon himself to investigate the killing of Helen Wilson after the case had gone cold; later, he joined the Beatrice sheriff’s department, where he became the point man pursuing justice in Wilson’s death.
Searcey began rounding up suspects after a teenage girl told him she had overheard two people say they had committed the Wilson murder.
“Searcey generally spoke with his suspects for a few hours, telling them about the crime,” The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv wrote in her 2017 piece, “and didn’t record the conversation until they were ready to confess.”
In the series, Searcey cannot contain his pride in his ability to interrogate people. “It’s amazing,” he tells Wang, “you gain their trust, what they might tell you.”
Not unlike a detective, documentary filmmakers must rely on skills of persuasion to get their subjects to talk. For Wang, those subjects included relatives of Helen Wilson, townspeople, and others connected to the case, along with the wrongfully convicted.
“It took a lot of time to build that trust,” Wang recalls. “I would have to write to them, call them and meet with them before I had a camera. For some people, there was a long period of time and just building the relationship before they agreed to be filmed. And that gave them a chance to ask me any questions… I could respond to their concerns and tell them who I am and what my motivation and the intentions are.”
Similar to Truman Capote, who moved to Holcomb, Kansas to do the reporting on his true crime classic In Cold Blood, Wang took exceptional measures to make her series.
“I moved my family [to Beatrice]. My son went to a daycare there, and it was like being really immersed in life with people there,” she says. “In a small community, sometimes that really helped because if I gained the trust of one person, that person introduced me to another, to friends and family and the personal connection really helped.”
Mind Over Murder also stands as a portrait of a Midwestern town with a population that’s almost 100 percent white.
“To me, being a Chinese woman, showing up in town immediately attracted a lot of curiosity,” she notes. “Like people wanted to know, who are you? Why are you here? What are you interested in doing? Why? …I think maybe it even helped for them to see me as an outsider coming to tell the story. Maybe they trusted that there is some neutrality that I bring to the story.”
Mind Over Murder doesn’t adopt an accusatory tone. But it does raise questions about the investigative techniques of Deputy Searcey. Sophisticated DNA testing did not exist in 1985, but blood found at the crime scene could at least be narrowed to Type B. Searcey knew he needed to find someone with that blood type to solve the case. When the first few suspects he brought in turned out not to possess Type B blood, he simply kept asking them who else they knew or associated with.
The documentary shows that Searcy coached some of the suspects on what to say for the record; for instance, when one of them described the crime as having taken place in a house, he prodded her into changing her account to match the actual location, a brick apartment building. He allegedly showed the suspects crime scene photos, which could have implanted visual “memories” suggesting they had indeed been present at the killing. For a variety of reasons explored in the film, the six–most of them down-and-outers with little education and low self-esteem–were to greater or lesser degrees highly impressionable people.
“As the six suspects awaited trial, they were ideal inmates,” Aviv wrote in The New Yorker. “They had all been brought up in small white towns, where they considered police officers their guardians. Five of them had grown up in broken homes, bonding with family members who abused them—a survival strategy that they applied in this new context… (A psychologist assessed [JoAnn] Taylor’s competence to stand trial and found her sane, though he noted that she ‘reflexively feels guilty for everything.’)”
Even after scientific testing established the six had left no traces of DNA at the crime scene, most townspeople clung to the belief they were guilty. So did Deputy Searcey and Wilson’s family members.
“That’s why I think I was so attracted to this story because it’s not only a Beatrice story, it’s an American story. It reflects so much of the current society and how people have strong opinions about one thing, they form a judgment and they are unwilling to be challenged to reconsider,” Wang says. “People who believe things that are opposite, it’s very hard to come together and have a conversation and reach an agreement. And the story is such an example, almost like a distillation of that.”
Wang was born in Jiangxi Province in China and now makes her home in New Jersey. As a true crime piece, Mind Over Murder might seem to represent a thematic departure for her; three of her previous documentaries focused primarily on her native China. But in other respects the work is linked: One Child Nation (2019) and In the Same Breath (2021) have to do with propaganda—a form of mind control. And even 2016’s Hooligan Sparrow, about a Chinese human rights activist hounded by the government, connects in one way to Mind Over Murder.
The director says she showed Hooligan Sparrow to that film’s protagonist, Ye Haiyan. When they discussed it afterwards, Wang realized her subject’s memory of her own experience had been altered by seeing the film—the cinematic telling had gained preeminence.
“I pointed out that with some of the narrative I had to switch the chronology to make the story clearer. And she didn’t believe that,” Wang recalls. “She was like, ‘That was my life. I remember that.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I spent three years editing it and I knew what I changed.’ It was shocking to me to realize that I as a storyteller would have the ability to change somebody’s memory, and for her to internalize that narrative and completely replace her original memory.”
Wang says that encounter left her feeling both “fascinated, but also scared about the power of suggestion and also malleability of memory. And especially in the wrong hands, because we all have false memory and that we might not be aware that we remember our past wrong.”
Mind Over Murder reveals whose DNA actually was found at the crime scene. And it probes the role of Wayne Price, simultaneously a psychologist and a sheriff’s deputy, who convinced many of the defendants to consult their dreams for evidence of their guilt. Wang also gently questions Searcey on whether there is any way he can see another side of the story—that the Beatrice Six were not responsible in any way for Helen Wilson’s death.
The filmmaker says she has shown the series to the key people featured in it.
“We wanted to make sure that participants watch it before the premiere, because I feel like it’s not fair to put them through such an anxious, long wait for the next week to see themselves and to anticipate what it’s going to be,” Wang explains. “Burt Searcey, the [surviving defendants], Lois White–Joe White’s mom–and Helen Wilson’s grandchildren all watched all six episodes.”
The director adds, “Each of them liked it, on both sides. Probably the best, most rewarding experience is to hear their feedback, expressing their approval and their appreciation.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.